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Criminal Defence Articles

What is a Whole Life Tariff?

A whole life order, formerly known as a whole life tariff, is a custodial sentence that means that you will spend your entire life in prison. These sentences are only imposed very rarely to address the most heinous cases of murder. Very few people are given such a severe punishment. As this article will explore, a whole life order is different from a life sentence. We look at who receives a whole life order, and the procedure that you can follow in order to challenge a whole life order. We also consider the facts of some well notorious criminals who have received whole life orders.

What is the difference between a life sentence and a whole life tariff?

In common parlance, many people confuse receiving a life sentence with receiving a whole life order. Whilst a life sentence is a very serious punishment, it does not mean that you will spend your whole life in prison.

A life sentence means that you will serve a minimum term in prison, and once released you will spend the rest of your life on licence. If you commit further offences whilst on licence, you could be recalled to prison. The minimum term will be determined with reference to Schedule 21 of the Sentencing Code.

For example, if you arrived at the scene of a murder with a knife or other weapon with which you are found to have intended to commit an offence, the starting point for the minimum term is 25 years’ imprisonment. Once you have served your minimum term, you will appear before the parole board who will consider reports prepared on you by prison staff, and usually by a psychologist and a psychiatrist. On the basis of the information that is provided, the Parole Board will decide whether it is appropriate to release you into the community. For more information on life sentences, see the guide produced by the Sentencing Council.

By contrast, a whole life order often really means that you will spend your entire life behind bars. A whole life order is reserved for the most serious offences of murder, such as serial killers. As of June 2021, there were only 60 whole life prisoners in the whole of England and Wales. Some of these prisoners will be kept in high security prisons, and others will be receiving treatment in secure hospitals.

A whole life order can either be imposed by the Home Secretary (a politician) or in some circumstances by the sentencing judge in your case. These days, the vast majority of whole life tariffs are imposed by sentencing judges. The Court of Appeal also has the power to impose whole life orders.

Who will receive a whole life tariff?

Whole life orders can only be given in cases of aggravated murder. You can receive a whole life order if you are over the age of 21 at the time of sentencing. Serial killers will often receive a whole life order. However, in extreme circumstances, you can receive a whole life order for a single killing.

For example, recently, Wayne Couzens, the policeman who abducted, raped, and murdered Sarah Everard as she walked home in Brixton during the Covid-19 lockdown received a whole life order. Couzens appealed against the decision to impose a whole life sentence in his case on the basis that it expanded the categories of cases that parliament had declared are appropriate for a whole life sentence. The aggravating feature in his case was the fact that he abused his position of authority as a police officer in order to falsely arrest Everard prior to her murder. The Court of Appeal found that his behaviour posed a threat to democratic society and made the imposition of a whole life order appropriate. In considering his appeal, the Court of Appeal declared that a whole life order is ‘an extreme sentence for an extreme level of offending.’

More commonly, whole life orders are imposed where multiple killings take place. Khairi Saadallah received a whole life order after he murdered three men in 10 seconds in Reading Park as part of a Jihadist attack. Levi Bellfield, who now goes by the name of Yusuf Rahim, is the first person to have been given two whole life orders, the first for murdering two young women and attempting to murder a third, and the second for murdering 13 year old Milly Dowler. Bellfield is said to have had an obsession with girls in school uniform and targeted his victims due a hatred of women with blonde hair. Bellfield, who was already serving his first whole life tariff at the time that he was sentenced for Dowler’s murder, refused to leave his prison cell to hear the judge hand down his second whole life order sentence.

Famous serious killer Peter Sutcliffe, ‘The Yorkshire ripper’, was given 20 separate life terms for murdering 13 women and attacking 7 others. He applied to the High Court for a finite sentence to be imposed but this was refused, and he died behind bars in 2020. Child killers Rosemary West and Myra Hindley, both of whom conspired with their husbands to kill multiple people, were both given whole life tariffs. West’s whole life tariff was imposed in 1997 by the Home Secretary of the time, Jack Straw. Meanwhile Hindley was given a life sentence with a minimum term of 25 years before being considered for parole; however the term of her custodial sentence was subsequently extended to a whole life tariff, and she died without ever managing to win parole.

David Fuller, a necrophiliac who murdered and then raped the dead bodies of his victims was given a whole life order in 2020. Operating from mortuaries, he sexually abused the dead bodies at least 102 women and girls between the ages of 9 and 100.

Thomas Mair, who murdered MP Jo Cox, was not a serial killer but still received a whole life order due to the politically motivated nature of the murder. He claimed to have murdered the MP in order to advance a cause associated with Nazism. Similarly, Michael Adebolajo, one of Lee Rigby’s killers, was given a whole life order for his role in the murder. Lee Rigby, a fusilier in the British Army, was stabbed to death near his barracks by Adebolajo and Adebowale, both of whom held extremist Islamist beliefs.

Is it possible to challenge a whole life tariff?

As with any criminal sentence, it is possible to challenge a whole life tariff by appealing to the Court of Appeal. If you wish to do this, you should discuss this with your solicitor as soon as possible after your sentence has been passed. You also have the right to instruct new legal representation for your appeal. Your new lawyers may need to consult with your previous lawyers as part of their ‘due diligence’ exercise.

In addition, if you are serving a whole life order it is possible to apply to the Home Secretary for compassionate release, usually if you are very old and/or unwell. This might be granted where you are found to only have a short time left to live.

In 2012, some prisoners convicted of murder attempted to challenge whole life tariffs by appealing to the European Court of Human Rights, stating that a whole life tariff breaches their human rights. The court found that whole life tariffs did not breach their rights, on the basis that the imposition of a whole life tariff was not ‘grossly disproportionate.’ However, on appeal it was found that in order to be in accordance with human rights law, there must be some possibility of review within the first 25 years of the custodial sentence and some possibility of release. The European Court of Human Rights criticised the powers wielded by the Home Secretary in relation to whole life tariffs on the basis that they are unclear.

The issue was later considered again by the Court of Appeal in England in 2014. The Court of Appeal upheld the right of the Crown Court to impose whole life tariffs. The Court of Appeal argued that the European Court of Human Rights had misunderstood the position in English law, because there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ in which an offender serving a whole life order can appeal to the Secretary of State for their sentence to be reduced.

Where to get further help?

If you are facing a life sentence, you may be reassured to hear that this does not mean that you will spend your whole life in prison. As this article has illustrated, only the most serious killings, usually of multiple people, will result in a whole life tariff. Nonetheless, receiving a life sentence is undoubtedly very serious and will change the course of your life. Even once you are released from prison, you will still need to report to your probation officer, and will be limited in where you can live, travel and work. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, we understand how high the stakes are for you at this moment. Our experienced criminal defence team is here to help. Contact us for a no obligation consultation today.


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